"It's one of those nights," she said. She was lighting a menthol off the end of a smoking butt. The cash register hummed underneath the buzz of the overhead fluorescents. Together, the noises almost masked the sounds of the crickets. Their little love song sang through the open door and it was getting on Little Liza's nerves.
"Crickets again, huh?" That was Randy. He never offered much in the way of conversation, but he certainly knew what the midnight crickets sounded like and he certainly knew how Little Liza felt about it.
"It's like they forgot to start coming on to each other when the sun went down," she said through a cloud of spearmint gum and Menthol smoke, "and now they're waking up all horny."
Daddy didn't call her "princess" for nothing.
His tired mind had somehow conjured up a picture of a cricket with morning wood and he wanted to laugh. Still, he knew if he opened his mouth, the picture would spill out in words and he would be embarrassed as only a 34 year-old married man can be.
Teresa, Randy's wife, didn't know that her husband's first stop on his way to work was the Hot Spot on Highway 29. She knew he had to buy coffee somewhere, but she never asked where and she never asked who he bought it from. She thought pretty highly of her trusting nature. She considered it a virtue above most others. And if some little slut came on to Randy, well, he certainly knew better than to come back on. He was married, after all.
"I figure it this way..." Randy could hear the girl continuing as he walked to the coffee machine. Past the frappa-whatever, past the latte, past the frothy-milky-whatizt and straight to the tarry stuff on the far right.
Liza’s voice carried over the potato chips. "The big lights at the diner go on about the time the sun goes down. Then the diner closes at eleven. Hank shuts off the lights. By the time midnight rolls around, they feel like they've missed half their night, and they're screaming for some lovin'."
"The crickets or the people at the diner?" That was the best Randy could do as he put the lid on his coffee.
"What do you think, Smarty?" Little Liza had laid her cigarette in an ashtray by the register and turned to the wall of smokes behind her. "Need them tonight?"
Did he ever. The wife had sucked out his breath tonight as he was getting ready for work and Randy couldn’t think of anything better than smoke to fill his lungs
"I stopped by the Hot Spot this morning," she had said. "That Liza Gamble was there."
Randy continued brushing his teeth and grunted in time with the flush of the toilet. Teresa walked out of the bathroom, talking as she went. "I don't think she's a very nice girl."
Teresa opened the daycare in Boone five days a week. She went in around 6 am, a few hours before Randy got off, and about the time Liza Gamble was getting ready to go home.
Randy was spitting in the sink when Teresa poked her head back in the bathroom, "You know who she is, don't you?"
"Um...no, I don't think I do." As he wiped his mouth, he looked around a room for a razor to cut his throat. Damned mouth spoke before he could think. What the hell did his mouth know, anyway?
"Little girl, about 5'3" or so? Smokes those menthols and puts her elbows on the counter like a little girl?"
"Jesus, honey. It's almost midnight." Randy rushed past her and out of the house into the driveway.
As he shoved the key into the ignition, he would've sworn he heard his wife call out from the porch, "I think she's a slut!"
That had been ten minutes ago and Randy still couldn't breathe.
"Hard pack right?" Liza Gamble looked over her shoulder with her hand on the row of Camels. "One or two?"
"Two." Randy fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a ten.
"So, you figure they like to get it on or it's just a nature sound? Six ninety." She barely looked at her fingers as they punched in the prices.
"What do you think?" Randy laid his ten on the counter and watched her take a drag off the cigarette.
"I figure it's a little of both. Three ten's your change." Exhale, menthol smoke slipping under Randy's hat and into his hair. He'd smell it there two hours later and be forced to take one of the three smoke breaks he was permitted during his shift.
"I guess you're probably right," he said taking the three singles and dime from the counter. He stood one half-second longer then he'd planned to, then turned on his boot heels and walked for the open door.
"Your wife stopped in."
Randy tried not to stop like a cartoon character, boots squeaking and coffee leaking out from underneath the lid. He was not very successful. How casual could he possibly be?
"Yeah, acted sort of strange. Said she thought her husband came in here every once in a while. Asked if I knew you." The menthol was almost out.
"Oh, yeah?" Randy could think of no more to say. He almost made a joke about cricket morning wood just to change the subject.
"Yeah. I told her I didn't think I'd ever seen you. Maybe you stopped at Elliot's Exxon or something."
"That right?" Randy was trying to hear the crickets over the breath in his chest.
"Yeah." Little Liza lit another menthol off the butt of the one she was smoking. "See you tomorrow night."
The air outside was warm and made his coffee cup seem warmer. Randy's truck engine was still ticking when he got back to his parking space. Inside, Liza put her elbows on the counter and looked out the window toward him.
Like she did every night the crickets sang their midnight song.
"You usually don't sit and eat."
The waitress was the kind who had a story all her own, but she wouldn't tell it while standing at the counter. If she told the story again, the three old men watching the old TV would complain. They were watching the Braves get shelled again. They certainly had heard her story before—a shuffled bit of fiction and reality TV fodder that would never be the great American novel or a one-hour special on FOX. She didn't mind telling how she ended up working the counter at Nick's, but the old men had heard it all before. As I usually didn't sit to eat, I had never listened to the story before. I almost wanted to hear it, but I wouldn't.
"I'm usually supposed to be somewhere," I said. It was hoping it would serve as an explanation, but it came off sounding like I was trying to be mysterious. The pile of green beans on my plate had been cooked down to slightly less than a ham-flavored, dark green mass. I loved them that way, but poked at them nonetheless. Grandma cooked them for me a long time ago and miles from this little place. I remember when I left her town, too.
"Not tonight?" the waitress asked. It was a question thrown over her shoulder as she poured another cup of coffee for the last guy at the counter. He was in the middle of a long diatribe about endorsement contracts and those damned Cubans. I gathered he wasn't talking about cigars.
I didn't feel like offering much more. If she cared—and I caught a look in her eye that indicated she just might—she probably didn't want to hear the whole story anyway. At any rate, she wouldn't believe it.
"It's the Dominicans you're talking about." Old guy number two was snuffing out his third cigarette since I sat down. He stressed the "min" on "Dominicans" harder than I thought most people of the Caribbean would find appropriate. The sun setting through the plate glass windows caught the cigarette smoke and made the old guy look like he belonged in Hollywood.
My truck—the new red one that sat out near the road—probably hadn't cooled off yet, but the sure tick of the still-hot engine might as well have been a stopwatch. Even the diner on the edge of town wasn't quite far enough away.
"New truck out there." The waitress was on her elbows a couple of feet down from my near-finished plate. She was small-town pretty and her elbow-balance made her more so. The unspoken question mark in her tone made me wonder if she wanted to ride shotgun. Made me wonder if she cared that the only destination was Away. Made me wonder how she would react when I left her, too.
"Don't ask if it's got a Hemi. It doesn't."
I was trying to be funny, but realized the joke was four years old and would've been lost on her anyway. Old "Cuban" Guy looked over his shoulder in the direction of the truck, but didn't say anything.
In six or seven bites I would be on my way out to the truck, having neglected to ask the waitress if she could get off early, having neglected to explain to the old guys what was really wrong with American sport, and having forgotten to tell anybody I knew in the whole damned town that I was never coming back.
I ate slowly before tipping the woman enough to thank her for letting me go so easy.
Cope didn't say much. If we asked him a question, he'd answer, always with a "yessir" or a "nossir." Beyond that, he sat silent in the back seat, staring out the window and wiping runners of sweat from his neck.
"Okay back there, Cope?" I asked. My hands were wet on the steering wheel. If the car had been going any faster than three miles per hour, I would've been worried about holding on. As it was, there was a greater chance I'd dehydrate and die before I ran the car into one of the pine trees on the side of the interstate.
"Yessir," the kid said. "One-one-one."
Papa had been quiet, too, but Cope's unusual elaboration pulled the old man out of his daydream. "What's that, son?"
"One-one-one," Cope repeated, pointing at the mile marker sign. It was faded green with white letters, bent on the top right corner, and tilting slightly toward the grove of trees on the east side of the road.
Papa nodded. "That's right son. Took us half an hour to get from one-one-zero to one-one-one."
"Twenty-eight minutes," Cope said and turned back to the window.
Cope was no more Papa's son than Papa was my father. Papa was actually PawPaw, my grandfather. Ten years ago I changed the way I said it--not the way I thought it, though.
I watched the thermometer on the dash as it teased the red line on the far right. I figured we didn't have much longer before the old Monte Carlo would give up. At the speed limit, the breeze--even at 90 degrees outside--cooled the engine block. At a standstill, we could've grilled our peanut butter sandwiches on the manifold.
"We're going nowhere fast," I said, if only to see if I could pull Cope back into conversation. He'd been with us for about eleven months. He was polite, helpful, and never lazy. He helped clean, he always folded his sleeping blankets on the couch in the morning, and he only cried at night when he thought I was asleep.
"Rollin' down the road, goin' nowhere," Papa hummed. His voice was deep, smooth, and darkened by 40 years of Camels.
It was a game we'd been playing since I was old enough to talk. I'd say something and Papa would sing it. He always kept his head turned when he sang the first line. He waited for me to give him something else to sing. This day, I was hot, worried, and not much in the mood.
"Cope, you put the guitar in the trunk, yeah?"
"Yessir," he said, a little brighter this time. Cope loved when I played. He'd tap his foot and clap quietly with the beat. "One-one-two."
I looked to the roadside. That mile had gone a little faster, but now traffic had stopped. I could feel the engine's heat trying to push through the dashboard.
"Rollin' down the road, going nowhere, guitar packed in the trunk," Papa sang. Cope leaned up and put his chin on the back of the seat.
The last time traffic had been like this had been the last time Cope had seen his mother. It was the last time a lot of kids had seen their mothers, in fact. The guys on TV had called it a Cat 5. Papa just called it, "The Big One."
I craned my head out the window and saw nothing but stopped cars. Thousands of them shimmering in the heat, half of them with heads looking out the window to see why we weren't moving. Five more minutes and I knew the Monte Carlo would be dead. I killed the engine and prayed it would start again. As the idle went silent, people started to get out of their cars. Some looked at the sun, some looked their cars, but none of them looked back South.
Last time, a lot of people tried to stay home. No one--not Papa, not me, and certainly not Cope's mama--believed the Big One. Now, the TV men were talking about a Cat 2. It wasn't the Big One, but the people on the road were acting just as scared.
"Will you play, Jimmy?" Two weeks before, we had cut Cope's hair down to nearly nothing with some clippers Papa kept in the bathroom. Now, I could see the sweat beads on shimmering against Cope's brown scalp. Would I play?
"Cope, now's not the best time."
"Rollin' down the road, goin' nowhere," Papa hummed.
He was right. Something had happened up the road and the line of cars was stopped, ten thousand cars long, and nature chasing us all away. It's hard to be chased when you're facing a wall, though.
There was a young family in an SUV in front of us. Dad had turned off his engine and was pulling Sprites out of a cooler. I was getting a little worried about Cope and Papa. It was Mississippi July hot.
The roadside climbed up on our right to a square patch of pine tree shade.
"Cope, you think you could carry my guitar up that hill?"
Instead of answering, he held out his hand and waited for me to give him the keys. I looked at Papa who merely sang, "guitar packed in the trunk."
I had a jug of tepid water in the back floorboard. I helped Papa with one hand and held the jug in the other as Cope ran over the pine needles and up into the shade. Above, a television news helicopter hovered, its hemispherical camera shifting from right to left, panning the immobile cars.
Papa and I weren't planning on leaving. It was sheer luck our little house survived the Big One. Together, over a cold beer on the front porch, we had decided if the structure could make it through a Cat 5, it would scare the hell out of a Cat 2.
The next morning, though, we found Cope in front of the TV watching a storm swirling off the south Florida coast. His shaking hands and empty eyes meant Papa and I didn't have to talk about it anymore. We were leaving.
Papa and I never discussed how Cope came to live with us. We never talked about whether it was a good idea, about how it might look for two white men to be living with a little black boy. We didn't talk about how my mama was gone or how Papa had lost his only child. No, we didn't talk about that either.
At the top of the hill, I handed the jug of water to Papa. He took a pull and handed the jug back.
"You thirsty, Cope?" I asked.
A small black hand pushed the guitar into mine and reached for the bottle. Cope took a sip and looked at me over the top of the water.
"Take a seat," I said to no one in particular and planted my behind on the pine needles. "How did that go, Papa?"
Papa's mouth curled into a smile. "Rollin' down the road, goin' nowhere, guitar packed in the trunk."
My fingertips were sweating, even in the shade. They slid across the steel strings, tinny, bluesy. I could hear the song in my head. "Sing it again."
"Rollin' down the road, goin' nowhere, guitar packed in the trunk." Papa was patting his knee with the beat. Cope's hands were clapping silently. The line hit me in time with the music.
"Somewhere around mile marker one-twelve," I sang, "Papa started humming the funk."
The SUV family, all with Sprites in their hand, had walked to the side of the road. They stood listening as Papa and I sang, trading lines, and driving Cope to make more noise with his hands.
The cars still weren't moving and the far-away whipping of the new helicopter suggested nobody was going anywhere for a while. It seemed many drivers had come to the same conclusion. Engines went silent and faces appeared through the heat. Families, old and young, and come in search of the shade we'd found. Some sat, some stood, but they all were listening.
Papa and I had run out of spontaneous lines and had taken to humming along with the steady blues beat. I watched the faces. A captive audience, I thought, but kept playing.
Papa told me once that he had played guitar for my mama. He said she smiled and pretended to play an imaginary guitar on her lap. He said she had loved me more than he could ever say. Papa hadn't said much after that.
"Take me home."
The "o" on "home" was drawn out, a note across eight beats. It was a high voice, perfectly in tune. "Take me ho, oh, oh, home."
Cope was still clapping quietly, but now his lips were in a circle, as he sang it again, the chorus to a song none of us had ever heard. "Take me ho-oh-oh-home."
A 12-year-old SUV kid was next. His voice sounded like it was about to change and it made for a roadside harmony that I couldn't help but enjoy. "Take me ho-oh-oh-home."
I played two more bars before half the assembled audience was singing along with Cope and the SUV kid, 20-part harmony at mile marker 112.
It was over before I had a chance to paint the memory picture in my head, but I can still hear the sound. I can still hear Cope's voice.
[Note: The final vignette is based on the Marc Broussard song, "Home."]
Brad "Otis" Willis is a writer from G-Vegas, South Carolina.